I turned 40 last December, which underlined both the fact of my own mortality and the feeling that there is so much more I want to do and so little time in which to do it. I’ve been laboring over my book Berlin for more than ten years now, with (crossing fingers) four more to go, and my phlegmatic rate of production has been a source of great anxiety for me. So I made a decision not too long ago that I would find ways to “cheat” and take more shortcuts in my work — or to put it more palatably, to “streamline” my working process.
One way I’ve chosen to do this is to trace photographs. Many if not most cartoonists rely on photography for visual reference, but tracing is generally considered bad form, because when you do it you bypass the challenge and learning experience of drawing from scratch. More importantly, from my perspective, you run the risk of producing an obviously traced drawing, which can have a dissonant effect on the reader.
So, in the interest of saving time, I recently began to trace selective images — about 6 panels total out of City of Smoke‘s 192 pages. My rationale is pretty simple: in my philosophy of comics, content trumps technique. Visual incongruity is the only real potential drawback to tracing, so I take pains to make sure the traced image feels of a piece with its surroundings.
The Reichstag figures prominently in Berlin #16, but at the thumbnail stage it’s a harmless little blob, as you can see in the first panel here:
One of the reasons I keep my thumbnails so small is so I can conceptualize scenes without having to worry about how the heck I’m ever going to draw them. Which means when I get to the penciling stage I often review a crowd scene or urban panorama — rendered in my thumbnails as a few little squiggles — and then promptly begin beating my head against my lightbox to the refrain of, “What the **** was I thinking?!?”
Confronted with the above example, I hunted up images of the Reichstag that would roughly suit the angle of the shot in that first panel, and settled on the postcard image that leads off this entry. I began sketching away, flipping the angle mentally (the façade of the Reichstag was essentially symmetrical), and promptly stopped about 25% of the way into it. I’ve drawn pages and pages of street scenes and architecture over the years, but I balked at this one; partly because it’s such an iconic building that I didn’t want to get it wrong, and partly because I just didn’t have the patience. Who has time to draw the Reichstag from scratch? My life is half over already!
So I flipped the image in Photoshop, printed it out, and taped it to the back of the penciled panel:
And when the time came, I inked right over the top of it:
Note the word balloon conveniently placed smack on top of the building so that I don’t have to draw that part of it. That’s right — there is no low to which I will not sink! Ha ha ha ha ha!